Soy Valdés

by Lisette García

Vicky blamed her fat butt on the Cuban government, claiming its leaders had deformed the adipose tissue in her body through an overdose of split peas and mystery meat. To be certain, split peas and ground soy factored heavily in the rationing system she had been forced to subsist on through age 38. However, these humble staples of the island nation were not as likely the cause of Vicky’s rapidly increasing pants size since her arrival to the United States as was her penchant for double lattés during 8- to 12-hour shifts at her sedentary job as a Miami-Dade County bus driver. Nonetheless, Dr. Linda Chi didn’t discourage Vicky’s misplacement of body image issues. In fact, she promoted it. In her 41 years administering psychotherapy in the US and abroad, Chi had found pointing the finger at tyrants like Fidel Castro for anything sad or sour in one’s existence a safe and effective method of relieving all manner of ordinary pains associated with everyday life.

Moreover, Chi had found it a particularly useful palliative in those who, like 40-year-old Vicky, had been indoctrinated from a tender age to poo-poo notions of heaven and hell as mere fairy tales. By the same token, the tactic worked magic in legions of others who by their own wits had grown weary of religion’s strict divisions and, so, lacked a Satan figure to cast stones at or a Christ to crucify in exchange for sin.

In all honesty, Vicky’s bearded herring in olive drab made an especially attractive shit-catcher since (a.) due to his own ever-expanding waistline a blind archer couldn’t miss him from a mile; (b.) he was conveniently isolated from the rest of the earth by a watery grave filled with castaway witnesses to his nickel-fisted rule; and (c.) he never stopped talking long enough to let anyone forget--much less forgive--the atrocities he had indeed committed against humanity, which were numerous and counting.

Still, Chi faced a very real dilemma. In her deluded state, Vicky was becoming heavier, uglier, unhappier and unhealthier. If the trend weren’t checked soon, Chi could be out of a patient before the current tax cycle was through. Vicky might quit therapy or kill herself or, worse, Vicky’s body might just keel of its own accord under the added pressure of the oversized load. But deactivating Vicky’s anti-Castro defense mechanism also carried a terrible price. Chi knew that, without a tangible scapegoat for misfortune, Vicky might never reach beyond the wheel of her 96-passenger Metro-Dade Transit Authority wagon. Chi believed that Castro, as an abject object of hatred, had accomplished what oodles of group sessions and self-help books had not: He had injected tens of thousands of regular folks with the need and means to achieve a sustained, consistent level of excellence--if only out of spite. He had turned a simple milkman into a technology magnate and earned an average pencil-pusher the coveted Pulitzer prize. World leaders secretly recognized the true "triumph of the Cuban revolution" to reside within the hearts of its outcasts, with Henry Kissinger dubbing the exiles a breed of "Über Cubans."

So, to Chi, reprogamming Vicky was to strip her of her birthright, a crime tantamount to spiritual murder. For, if Vicky were prevented from accessing and exercising her maximum potential, Chi thought her patient might as well be dead--or rotting once more under the enforced mediocrity of Communism. Finally, after much hand-wringing, Chi settled the quandary by resolving to ease Vicky toward a gentle shift in perspective: one that didn’t altogether absolve Castro yet allowed Vicky some accountability in the calorie battle. At their next session, Chi opted for a neutral opener, deciding to probe Vicky’s family medical history to see if DNA was at fault in part, too.

"No. Mami’s not a bone but I wouldn’t say she’s obese," Vicky said, scowling. She always suspected her paid confidante would wind up reducing her massive weight gain to a case of genetics.The grilling continued.

"No. Poor Papi," Vicky grumbled. "He wasn’t really a rail until the cancer picked him clean." She hoped a sassy answer would put an abrupt halt to this useless line of questioning.

No such luck. And, to worsen matters, the next question, regarding grandparents, spun Vicky into a virtual trance.

Envisioning an illusory place that had existed and vanished before she was born, Vicky recounted for the therapist the story of a boy and girl raised as brother and sister at a Havana nunnery in the wake of World War II. Each, like countless other foundlings, had been anonymously deposited in a turnstile at Casa Cuna’s back door. The unluckiest bundles--those too old, too fussy, too sickly or too plain to be chosen by the island’s wealthier residents--were given the last name of the benefactor of the orphanage. All this, of course, taking place before 1959, when Castro's forces commandeered parochial property, Vicky finished. "So, in answer to your question," Vicky said, resuming the interview, "I don’t know who my grandparents were. My mother’s maiden name is Valdés. Her married name is, too."

Chi was horrified to learn the fate of unwanted babies in the era that preceded Cuba’s most recent regime. As a medical professional touring the island, she had only had occasion to study its current program of free, government-performed abortions and, back home, to treat a handful of the hundreds of Cuban women who had been coerced into undergoing the procedure before fleeing a nation bent on population control at any expense. Chi found both solutions to the island’s surplus offspring equally revolting and joined Vicky in spending what remained of the hour on a liberating crying jag.

Wracking as it may have been, the emotional fit was not without its benefits, having produced jarring epiphanies in both women. Chi, who was approaching 70 anyway, relinquished her firm in favor of facilitating morally-sound overseas adoptions; and Vicky, whose last name ended in ‘s’ rather than the more common ‘z’ thanks to her distinct heritage, at last labeled herself a locker at Gold’s Gym, concluding that, even if Castro and genetics had conspired to tighten the squeeze in her Levi’s jeans, devoting a couple of hours a week to the StairMaster couldn’t hurt her figure in the end.

Unfortunately, neither woman obtained satisfaction from their new courses of action. After matching several Cuban wombs to willing US homes, Chi was charged with "unlawful appropriation of government property" and spent 30 days weeping in a dank El Morro cell.

"But I meant no harm," pleaded Chi, in broken Spanish, at her lawyerless trial. Claiming not to know that all Cuban children, including those residing with their loving parents, are part of the national patrimony under Castro's system and not available for redistribution except by direction of the state did nothing for her defense.

"Ignorance of the law does not preclude you from the penalty it carries," recited the judge. He yawned at the impertinence of the meddling yanqui. Her story bored him, as it had American journalists who failed to make a federal case of the consensual baby transfer stuck in red tape because the story lacked spice. The State Department didn't get involved either, investigating instead Chi's non-existent ties to human smugglers in China because of her distant ancestry.

Having nothing but her dignity left to barter, Chi resorted to begging. "Please have mercy, your honor," she cried.Luckily, he did.

Unable to leverage the doctor's arrest and confinement into an international incident, Chi was released at time served with her passport stamped invalid for re-entry; persona non grata the blue booklet now bluntly stated in red. Free, but not to go unpunished, Chi was forced to pay her own deportation. In the US, she faced refunding--as originally agreed upon--half the money posted by the US families for "reasonable maternity and delivery expenses," which amounted to US $10,000 each. Sadly, Chi had never imagined her well-intended plans would fall through and had passed much of this cash on to travel agents, customs officials, notaries public, document translators, hoteliers, taxi drivers and, of course, her elected mothers-to-be.

Even safely inside the States, with her lock-up nightmares starting to fade, Chi's troubles dragged long into the new year. Come tax time, she was cited by the Internal Revenue Service as a filer likely to have under-reported her income. And, while close scrutiny of her business records did not reveal what agents had hoped for, the audit robbed plenty of sleep from her and gave rise to a Treasury Department review.

Here, Chi was declared guilty of attempting to violate the Cuban trade embargo, imposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. JFK's legacy has been muddled in the four decades since but not completely vanquished: Chi paid a bevy of fines for abusing the liberty of traveling to Cuba.

Her reputation and confidence permanently shaken, Chi left Miami for a job as a part-time counselor at a school for pregnant girls in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York City. Clearly, her bi-weekly check of $700 was not enough to cover the substantial nut she had accrued. Several travel books on Cuba later, though, she managed to get herself afloat.

Vicky's undoing, while not as dramatic, was far more devastating. During her second visit to the StairMaster, she tripped and tangled her right foot in an upswinging pedal, splintering her ankle and rendering herself permanently disabled.

Lisette García is a former journalist and US Marine.